The State We’re In

We’ve been talking to friends in the industry about the state of play with regards to copying, warez, torrent sites, cracking, and people’s attitudes to what most people regard as “piracy”.

I borrow books from my dad; I lend him books. I don’t feel obliged to pay for my own copy to read it. He’s in close(ish) proximity to me and knows he’ll get his book back (sometimes, haha). But that’s about as far as that book is likely to get because it is a bulky piece of physical media. Funny how the oldest bit of technology is also the most future proof in this ecosystem.

Records were the same, 40 years ago, and then tapes turned up and people could easily give recordings to each other and the RIAA whined and moaned about it and levied all sorts of crazy taxes on blank tapes and yet mysteriously record sales went up and up ever since until they got replaced by CDs. This, I think, is because there was an inherent value in a record that wasn’t present on a recording on a tape – the physical medium was quite nice, and the recordings usually didn’t sound nearly as good anyway. Then some bright spark realised you could sell prerecorded tapes and actually have the existence of the medium increase profits.

Then we get CDs and there’s a little golden era for the record companies because CDs are novel and taped recordings of them sound so inferior to digital media that tapes die off pretty fast too except for people who listen to music in cars. And then CD players for cars solved that. The RIAA is happy because CDs are actually valuable.

…And then along comes the internet and hot on its heels MP3 compression and they’re back to the tape/vinyl situation again and they start whining and moaning again in the face of increasing music sales on CD despite the amount of copying going on. Then some bright spark realises they can sell prerecorded MP3s on the internet. Does this sound familiar?

The situation is remarkably similar for computer games, in their somewhat shorter history.

First came tapes of games. We copied them (well I didn’t, coz I only knew about 2 other people with C64s in my year at school so we just borrowed each other’s games) and so they put copy protection in and that was cracked anyway. Mysteriously the games industry grows. There are lots of little casualties and the survivors consolidate.

Then came games on disk. They were copied, and then copy protection got put on them, and they got cracked and distributed via BBS to a wider audience. Mysteriously the games industry grows. There are lots of little casualties and the survivors consolidate.

Then came games on CD. They are copied, and then copy protection got put on them, and they got cracked and distributed on the internet to a worldwide audience. Mysteriously the games industry grows. There are lots of little casualties and the survivors consolidate.

Around this time though some bright spark realised you might as well distribute the games on the internet in the first place and the modern day Indie (indicus publishus developus) was conceived. Then the games got copied, so we put copy protection on them and then they got cracked and distributed on warez sites with powerful search engine mashups to aid people.

This is where we are now. There are many, many little ideas springing up all over the place to make money in the present ecosystem – which is basically the same as the record industry’s. We have all sorts of valid and working ideas:

  1. Encourage people to give full versions to friends and family (like borrowing books!) That’s the model we use, currently
  2. Ad-supported sites or software (and its derivative, websites full of Flash games that aren’t actually for sale, but with lots of ads). Yuk! But it works.
  3. Consolidate into being a publisher or affiliate retailer and stop developing games. This is probably where we’ll end up if we don’t figure out how to make more money soon.
  4. Portals. Haha. No.
  5. Client/server and various opportunities that entails (like total copy-proofing). Not necessarily multiplayer games either.
  6. Simply carrying on while the percentages make it worthwhile.
  7. Magazine distribution of full versions for specific territories (which I’m looking at in great detail!)
  8. Rant about pirates and waste time on tryign to educate them despite the fact there’s 1,000,000 times more of them than there are of you and if there’s one thing we know about economics it’s that might is right

What’s your choice?

16 thoughts on 'The State We’re In'

  1. Hmmm… of course it hasn’t been tried by many people, but you could try to have people pay you for the next improvement they want to see in a game they like, or for the next game idea they’d like to see. Highest bidder or group of bidders sees his/their request implemented first, provided they pay in advance. That, plus donations.

    Richard Stallman lived from revenues generated that way while developing emacs. It remains to be seen whether game development can pay as much. Maybe it can pay more actually.

    The Dwarf Fortress developer lives entirely from donations from people playing his game.
    Going the free as in freedom software way might help attract some sympathy and create an ecosystem of players, testers and helpful developers around your game. Of course you have to balance that against the risks of the eventual fork, but that’s pretty rare overall, unless you kind of abandon the project – in which case, you’re probably not making money out of it anyways.

  2. Magazine distribution? Interesting.

    It seems like the Conventional Wisdom here is:
    demo/buy conversion rates suck. Piracy makes them a lot worse, but you’re already fighting for your couple percent. OTOH, you’ve got the web. You’ve got lots of free client-server tech. You’ve got download-free, warning-free in-browser gaming with Java and Flash. But no one will actually pay for these games up-front, so you get your second option above (ad-supported). Or you make a persistent social site called Club Face Pirate, and sell people fruit trees for a buck each. Since the value there is in the network, it doesn’t really matter if someone rips off your game.

    I don’t really want to make a social networking site or casual MMO either, but perhaps you can still do something with the client/server option. It doesn’t have to be an MMO to sell them horse armor, am I right? Eh? A nod’s as good as a wink to a blind man, eh?

  3. Nice to see one UK-er that wouldn’t shoot a pirate with a bow, threat her with a klife or vote for death penalty for piracy 🙂 (joke CH)

    I myself don’t think about piracy much now. The main concern for 95% indie game (besides providing most value) should IMHO be getting noticed by largest possible number of its potential audience – and piracy has a little to do with that. When/if I reach that to a desired level then I will also think about preventing privacy.

  4. I don’t really understand why piracy is even on your radar.

    If someone finds your game on a warez site and downloads it, that is not a lost sale. That person would never have even known about your game if not for the warez site.

    Lost sales happen when someone downloads a game from your website, likes it, then searches for it on a warez site instead of buying it. How many of your visitors would even know how to do that? Certainly no more than ten percent.

    And of those, how many would pay pay for the game if they couldn’t find it on the warez site? I expect at *least* half of them simply have a policy of never paying for games, so they aren’t lost sales either.

    So, even if a million people are playing your game illegally, in terms of lost sales there is no way it could possibly amount to more than 5 percent, and is not something you ought to be too worried about.

  5. Well, y’know… it’s NOT on our radar at all! It’s on a few other indies’ radars though.

    So far for us using our super-friendly registration strategy seems to have paid off really nicely, and no-one has warezd our games to the best of my knowledge. At least, I can’t find them.

  6. You are already encouraging people to share there registrations with close friends family members in order that they might add some value to their purchase.

    Why not just charge half as much for the games? Or better yet use paypal and let people pay what they like?

    Selling a store through BMTMicro or whatever probably cuts into your profits a lot. Every indie game I see sold through them seems to be $20+ they probably don’t like dealing with $5 and $10 games.

    Paypal keeps many messageboards, open source projects and torrent sites running, why not indie games? I think part of the problem is that developers are too concerned trying to capture a few hundred $20 purchases and are missing out on thousands of $2 and $5 purchases. Also with paypal people have the option to pay even more if they have lots of money. There is no $20 limit.

    Although everybody likes to eat, and I think a pay what you like system would allow developers to eat just as much if not more than they do now, I think if you spend so much time working on something you would want many people to enjoy it not just a few.

    The way I see it free things tend to be more viral so they will get more publicity be played by more people and end up attracting more donations.

    Just some thoughts

  7. There are “perceived value” issues with indie games. Top tier PC games with “superior production values” may launch at $49 and soon dip to $29 or even less. It’s difficult to rationalize paying the same for a casual game.

    I bought Tribal Trouble for $29 and I like it, but it feels a little pricey – I guess I got my Quake 4 for less. I realize different economics behind a small operation, fact is that I didn’t help Oddlabs anyway since they seem to have quit making games.

    More sales at lower prices seems to be a good idea. Also some retail tricks like bundles, holiday specials etc. could work, just look at what the others are doing.

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  9. I believe there is at least one other option. Develop a community that people who purchase your game can enter, and provide your service there based around your entertainment title. A happy community will continue purchasing your future products because they see how you are providing them a service. When you keep your customers close, rather than trying to distance yourself from them, you have more opportunities to sell them on additional services, too. Ultimately, you could reach a state where you are giving away the entertainment title just to get more customers. You know people are going to share the software despite your best copy-restriction efforts, so why not take advantage of it? We have many articles on this topic on the website that I linked above.

  10. Firstly I just want to say i have always liked the way you’ve had an open minded attitude to sharing, with your “share it with your family and friends” approach, and it’s good to see your still not going down the crude black&white RIAA approach who tend to miss the point… It is quite a delicate subject, and there never seems to be a quick and easy fix. But acting a little more human like this makes your customers supportive, cooperative and happy rather than provoke them to rebel 🙂

    From what I have observed though my experiences in software piracy, it seems that generally games do not benefit (arguably) as greatly from the promotional aspect of piracy as many prosumer/commercial software tools do, and so the gains:losses ratio is usually far more negative. Partly due to them being consumer based wares but i think mostly because games fit into the -media- category along with music, tv, film, literacy etc… perhaps this is obvious but i think it is an important difference to recognize when considering the reasons behind and effects of various kinds of piracy on your product.

    With that in mind I think the reason that consumers resort to piracy, can be found in the question of how consumers like to receive and experience different kinds of media and how they value that method of delivery… Rather than the technological question of how or why it exists like the MPAA/RIAA ask, because whatever the medium there will always be a way, and that way will always be exploited… it’s only natural for us to share, it’s when the sharing of a certain product grows to unacceptable levels in place of purchase that (as i stated above) the consumer is unhappy in the delivery method and in disagreement with it’s value… (this is assuming that the majority are not plain and simple criminals).

    So that’s a pretty simple theory… delivery and value. Value is an easy one if your product is being excessively pirated on the same medium, then it could well be that your product is overpriced… after all the majority -do- prefer a legitimate copy with the guarantee, quality and support it comes with if it’s priced sanely. but I see delivery as a slightly more complicated factor, firstly it means the medium… i.e music piracy moves from CDs to the internet, it’s VERY convenient and has become very popular, it’s safe to assume that people would like to have their music delivered via the internet, *ping* itunes solved that one with huge success, delivery medium is satisfied… how about film and tv? well using the same example (you will have to excuse my reliance on one example, Apple, but it’s the best for recent modern piracy) Apple provided tv and film purchases via itunes… but not so successful, as Jobs announced recently- this is because people don’t necessarily want to -own- their tv shows and films… they just want to watch them once… This becomes obvious when you compare the sizes of the majority of consumers music and video libraries. some -types- of media like music simply have far more replayability than video, and therefore are worth owning. And this is where value comes back into it in relation to the delivery… if the consumer only want’s a pay-per-view type delivery then they aren’t going to want to pay as much as it costs for ownership…

    Computer games are obviously a whole other category of media, there are cinematic FPS that have the replayability of film, then there are very dynamic online multiplayer games that can outplay music and many others, retro arcade type games i’d say lie somewhere inbetween but it still depends on the exact nature of the game… the delivery is unfortunately – realistically limited to ownership as the arcade days are over (with the exception of MMORP i guess), and a logical choice of medium is between internet distribution and DVD for larger games. So the only variable you can adjust is price… which must be delicately balanced with the size of your target audience, and i honestly think that if it is balanced right then excessive piracy can be avoided… and if the product is good enough and the target audience large enough then it should sell well.

    So i suppose what it boils down to for games is replayability=value. It would be easy to point the finger at the dynamics of a game for replayability… and that might be largely true but then from personal experience i remember playing xenon on the atari as a kid :D, terribly addictive yet hardly dynamic at all… the same patterns the same story, just very hard, perhaps it’s simply subjective or perhaps times change.

    Maybe something to think about anyway, something to consider is that a companies cash cow or bread and butter doesn’t have to be the product they are most passionate about, but it doesn’t have to be too far off the mark ether, if you can get a product to consistently bring money in then you can fund your other projects with it… when you mention MMO, i actually quite like the idea of some kind of online multiplayer arcade game… certainly hasn’t successfully been done before, so it could take some radical thinking, especially to retain the retro arcade feeling… remember it doesn’t necessarily have to be MMORPG type games where it’s all one world, individual arena type games might be more suited to this style or you could think up an entirely new online multiplayer concept. Online multiplayer is definitely popular and it would definitely need to be bought to play… so it could be your cash cow.

    Just my amateur take on piracy and games…

  11. My choice? I played the demo of “Titan Attacks” a couple of times, decided that I really liked how awesome it was, and I bought it. It was a tough decision though. $19.95 is a bit high of a price point – in my opinion – for an arcade style game, no matter how fun it is.

    For me the ideal price is around $10 to $12. I’ll pay that for a game I like without batting an eye, but it gets up near $20 and I hesitate.

    It doesn’t help that the economy is so crappy right now, and you find yourself having to decide if you would rather buy a diversion, or save the money for gas and food.

  12. I’d agree that it s a lot about price. I personally wouldn’t go to the extreme of making your game free or for $1 which looks like you don’t think your game is worth much but a price which would be ideal for me (meaning I would seriously consider buying your game) would be from $5 to $10.

    I think that in a modern global economy a lower price is generally better, because you make your game affordable for the millions of players from eastern Europe who generally just don’t have the cash to pay $20 or $30 for a game and thus have to relay on torrent sites.

  13. hey owners of puppygames do you think there will be a ultratron 2 in fall 2008 or winter 2008 or 2009? you know atfer you finish making yours titan attacks 2. good luck working onyour TA2 project and that future game that i said above!

  14. What about going multiplayer? If you can get a group of friends and family playing the same game why not bring a multiplayer version/upgrade out where players can co-operate or compete? Ch-Ching Baby! $$$

    You may need a team/clan web site to help it along though!

  15. It is a very tough place. Piracy is rampant. I don’t think there is a great defense. MMOs are raking in the cash right now because they are piracy proof (and not even fully really look at Ragnarok Online). But we don’t all want to make an MMO.

    We want to make enough money so we can keep developing games. In my mind if a game is “that good” I’m gonna end up buying it. But the chances are I won’t buy it until I know it’s good and I know it gave me what I came for. It’s no different for software and hardware either.

    This is why I complain ferociously at indie developers that make their demos too short. In my mind that’s the biggest mistake they can make. In my mind no less than 25% of the game should be playable in a demo. Ideally at least 33%. This really shows your players what your game is made of. I’ve argued with indie developers on this face and they usually say, “Our research people are fickle, if they don’t want to buy they game after 20 minutes of playing the game, they’ll never buy it.” I don’t know how true that is but I believe in a player centric perspective.

  16. An experiment I’d like to see someone like you try is to sell online digital tokens: eg. in “TitanAttacks” you have in-game money that you earn by winning games. How about getting in-game money by spending real money?

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